AFL-CIO Convention Preview: Labor in for a Major Remake

LOS ANGELES—When thousands of delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention gather in Los Angeles on September 8, they’ll face a big task: Remaking the labor movement to make it a movement of workers, not just unions.

And that means not only changing the labor federation’s structure, but also its goals, its methods and even its definition of who it includes.

The need is urgent.  Union members are only 7% of private sector workers and just one of every nine workers overall.  And that’s despite high union density, 37%, in the public sector.

Indeed, that, too, is a problem of sorts: In numbers, more union workers are in the public sector than the private sector.  Without private sector unionists to support and work with them, public sector workers can find themselves isolated and vilified.

The public sector workers’ livelihoods, rights, pensions and jobs are at the whims of politicians.  That’s shown by the bankruptcy petition in Detroit, constant attacks on workers’ rights by Right Wing GOP governors and legislatures, and the cuts in public services, teachers and schools by Democratic mayors in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Private sector unionists have their own problems: Low U.S. union density lets rapacious, vicious corporations, both in the U.S. and abroad, stop at nothing – including moving threats, rampant labor law-breaking and even violence – to stop workers from organizing, mobilizing, defending themselves and gaining a better standard of living.

The result: Declining influence in the workplace and off-and-on success at the ballot box, in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill.

Faced with those problems, convention delegates have a big mission: To convert the federation into a broader, open labor movement, emphasizing the word “movement.”

“We need a more open conception of what it means to be part of the labor movement,” the federation’s blueprint for change says.  “The labor movement is organized around the workplace that was, not the workplace that will be.”

After hundreds of listening sessions, online talkbacks and other communications, the federation assembled that blueprint for reviving the labor movement as a movement.  That’s what the convention will consider.  It includes:

•    Broadening organized labor to be a labor movement.  Building on the AFL-CIO’s
affiliate for those who can’t or won’t join unions, Working America, the federation plans to create channels to bring more people into the labor movement, even if they aren’t union members.

“We will have to change our structures just in order to survive as meaningful working-class institutions,” the federation’s outline for the changes says.

The structures must change to bring in part-timers, temps, contingent workers, “independent contractors,” and multiple job-holders, among others, the fed says.  And that also means organizing the masses outside the restrictions of the National Labor Relations Act.

Examples include new organizations of taxi and restaurant workers, Domestic Workers United, the National Day Laborers Network and Casa de Maryland.

•    The movement should emphasize community organizing, partnerships with other progressive groups – who must support each other’s goals – advocacy groups and “perpetual organizing” for pro-worker issues, outside of collective bargaining.  That includes legislative and regulatory campaigns.

There should be “new types of community engagement,” by unions, with state federations and central labor councils often taking the lead, the blueprint says.  It calls for “enduring alliances based on shared values and trust.”

•    Re-emphasizing collective bargaining as a bread-and-butter issue important to workers, even with the new importance put on alternatives.  The blueprint quoted focus group members as saying collective bargaining is still important, as the way to maximize the gains workers organize for.  But participants want collective bargaining to “be more creative, recognize the changing nature of work and figure out ways of helping those with contingent or precarious employment.”

•    Engaging other progressive groups the corporate establishment has ignored, marginalized or discriminated against.  They include immigrants, women, minorities, young people and the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.
“Immigrants are a fast-growing demographic group, often exploited at work and will need a large-scale effort, which labor is in a position to provide, to ensure the process of bringing workers out of the shadows in immigration reform moves forward broadly and speedily,” the blueprint adds.

•    Changing labor leadership from domination by middle-aged and older white men.  “This push for diversity is not just about inclusion, but about achieving ‘real power’ in the movement,” the blueprint says.

•    Making labor more politically independent, with campaigns focusing on issues, not candidates.  The corollary, the blueprint says, is that emphasizing issues also means holding politicians accountable for their actions and votes on those issues – and campaigning against them when they fail.  The Tennessee AFL-CIO, with 60,000 members in its unions, just took a step in that way by voting at its state convention not to support Democratic officeholders, as their support for labor in the legislature and Congress is lacking.  That fed wrote off the GOP before.

Participants split about whether to follow a 50-state political strategy, or concen-trate on states with higher union density.  AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer said recently the fed plans to emphasize governors’ races in 2014.

•    “Define an agenda for shared prosperity and hold corporations accountable” for hewing to it.  Participants said growing income inequality should be a key issue for the labor movement – and they defined labor movement more broadly than just unions.  “The labor movement must lead the fight for economic justice,” the blueprint says.  And the fight “must address inequality for all, not focus narrowly on labor’s self-interest.”

“Labor must become the champion of the poor and the oppressed,” the blueprint quoted one participant.  “It must become the champion of fair, progressive taxation – solve the crises of debt and entitlement spending on the backs of the 1%, not the 90%.”  That includes a financial transactions tax.

•    Creating more links with unions abroad, to counter the reach of the multi-national corporations.  Several unions, led by the Steel Workers and the Communications Workers, have already done so.  But the links must be more constant and strong, since the multi-nationals exploit foreign workers by moving U.S. jobs abroad to take advantage of low wages, worker oppression, lousy working conditions and lax regulation.  The moves, and threat of moves, weaken U.S. workers.

•    Expanding communications to counter conservative and corporate control of the  mass media.  That includes using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get around that media blockade and a national advertising campaign – on the Internet.  Several participants suggested creating a 1-hour nightly news program on worker and economic issues.

•    Participants also emphasized that workers, not leaders, are the best speakers for labor.  They added there “must be a strong and sustained public outreach… where the benefits of unions to society are strongly promoted on a regular and ongoing basis.”